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The impact of social media on kids is again the focus of a Senate hearing

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Social media is responsible for cyberbullying, violence, even eating disorders among teens. That's what a Facebook whistleblower told a Senate committee earlier this month. Today, that same committee wants to know if other social media companies are safe for kids. Executives from YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok will testify today. We'll hear from Senator Amy Klobuchar in a moment. But first, NPR's Miles Parks is here on what we can expect from this hearing. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Safe to assume that it was the revelations from Frances Haugen, that Facebook whistleblower, that's prompted today's hearing?

PARKS: Well, that definitely expedited the process. But senators, honestly, over the last year have really focused on this issue as one of the most bipartisan and important issues when they think about reforms for Big Tech. You know, this - screen time has only become a bigger part of all of our lives over the last couple years. The parental control software company Qustodio released a report earlier this year that found overall screen time for kids was up 36% last year. Kids who used TikTok were using it for almost an hour and a half a day. Kids who used YouTube Kids were using it for an hour a day. Kids who used Snapchat were using it for 45 minutes a day. I imagine all of those numbers are very familiar to a lot of parents.

MARTIN: I mean, yeah. The pandemic meant a lot more screen time, for sure. Miles, wondering, though, if there is actual data out there about the effects of kids spending a lot of time using these social media apps.

PARKS: It's hard to drill down exactly and just say, you know, these apps or screen time generally is really bad for kids. You know, a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder, for instance, looking at 9- and 10-year-olds found no association between screens and childhood anxiety or depression. But, as we mentioned a second ago, a large chunk of the recently leaked Facebook documents do focus on the mental health effects that platform has on kids. One internal slide found that 32% of teen girls said that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse. And Snapchat and TikTok share a lot of similar features to Instagram. Bottom line here is that we all are still learning exactly how these platforms affect us, affect our children. But we're learning on the fly, since tens of millions of kids are already using these platforms all the time.

MARTIN: Right. So the executives from these companies no doubt are going to be on defense today. Do we have any idea what they're likely to say?

PARKS: We do. NPR acquired the opening statements from YouTube and from Snapchat. The biggest takeaway is that these companies are going to keep pushing back on this idea that their current business model prioritizes profit over the wellness of kids. That's always been the central concern here. If these businesses make money based on how long kids and people look at them and research indicates that some of those kids would be better off looking at them less, then it seems like there is an inherent conflict there.

But in her opening statement, the VP of Snapchat talks about a moment in 2017 where they realized that a part of their platform was leading to users making negative comparisons about themselves. They said that they redesigned the app. It may have hurt user growth, but that "it was the right thing to do for our community." That's a quote. The tough part here is that that was in 2017. I have to imagine all of these companies have had similar moments to that in the time since. But we don't know about any of those moments. I imagine lawmakers will want to hear about more of those moments.

MARTIN: There's a lot of chatter about regulation, Congress' role in helping, protecting kids here. Is there any sign of that to come?

PARKS: It definitely feels like we're inching closer to the possibility of regulation, and the Facebook leaks could potentially move that even further or even more quickly. But it's important to note that for how little we know about the effects of Facebook and Instagram on kids, we know even less about some of these other platforms. So hearings like this, like today, are important. I expect lawmakers are going to want to drill down on what internal research these companies have about their effects on kids.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks. We appreciate it, Miles. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.